How the Far-Right Is Radicalizing Anti-Vaxxers

Far-right groups have latched onto anti-vaccine protests and rallies, creating a pipeline to extremism. 

Nov 29 2021, 1:11pm

Piers Corbyn, a notorious conspiracy theorist and the elder brother of former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, is one of Britain’s most well-known and vocal anti-vaxxers. During the pandemic, he’s been on a relentless anti-vaccine tour across the U.K., harassing health experts, holding protests, and promoting wild medical misinformation. Earlier this month, his campaign brought him to a neo-Nazi podcast.

Corbyn’s host was Mark Collett, a self-avowed admirer of Adolf Hitler and one of Britain’s most prominent Nazi sympathizers. A former youth chair of the far-right British National Party, he now leads his own white nationalist group. Over the course of an hour, Collett and Corbyn discussed a range of COVID-19 conspiracy theories, both opposing vaccinations and claiming the pandemic was part of some sort of secretive plot. Corbyn talked about stopping a “new world order,” while Collett questioned who was behind the “COVID scamdemic.”   

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“Obviously, you and I agree on a lot of things,” Collett told Corbyn.

As anti-vaccine activists continue to spread medical misinformation online and hold rallies targeting schools, hospitals, and government officials, pairings like Corbyn and Collett have become common. White nationalists and QAnon influencers have become prolific sources for anti-vaccine propaganda, while far-right extremists march alongside anti-vaxxers at protests. In countries around the world, far-right and anti-vaccine movements are now deeply intertwined.

“We’re seeing something that we’ve probably never seen before in terms of how these ideologies work to feed off each other.”

“We’re seeing something that we’ve probably never seen before in terms of how these ideologies work to feed off each other,” said Aoife Gallagher, an analyst at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue think tank who tracks extremism and disinformation.

Far-right extremists and anti-vaxxers have increasingly found that they are natural bedfellows, sharing anti-government beliefs and indulging in a range of conspiracy theories. The boom in anti-vaccine movements since the emergence of COVID-19 has provided an opportunity for far-right groups to latch onto protests and rallies, creating a pipeline from vaccine hesitancy to outright conspiracies and extremism. 

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Meanwhile, social media platforms have made it easier than ever for the two movements to bleed into each other and amplify their message—one that frequently repackages old antisemitic bigotries and applies them to the pandemic.

The far-right embraces anti-vaccine protests

Since the start of the pandemic, anti-vaccine movements in numerous countries have gained new life and mobilized to take advantage of the increased public focus on vaccinations. Street protests and massive social media communities sprang up to oppose social distancing measures and spread medical misinformation. As researchers tracked these rallies and online anti-vax groups, they began to notice a variety of far-right activists mingling with coronavirus conspiracy theorists. 

“What was totally new for us was the strong mixture between the conspiracy groups and the far-right groups,” said Simone Rafael, a researcher at the German anti-racism group the Amadeu Antonio Foundation.

When COVID-19 vaccines became increasingly available over the past year and many governments moved to institute vaccination mandates for employment or travel, that link intensified, researchers say.

In New York, white nationalist Nick Fuentes and other members of the American far-right held anti-vaccine rallies earlier this month outside of a Staten Island hospital and clashed with counterprotesters in downtown Manhattan. Italian neo-fascists and anti-vaccine protesters joined in an October mass protest in Rome that degenerated into violence and an attempt to storm the prime minister’s office. In Canada, Ireland, and Australia, anti-government sovereign citizen movements have become deeply intertwined with anti-vaxxers. And in Germany, the country’s domestic intelligence agency put anti-vaccine protesters under surveillance this year as they mixed with far-right groups.

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“We had big demonstrations in the streets in a lot of German cities, but also an evolving network of hate groups,” Rafael said. “We could see the common thread throughout these groups was conspiracy ideologies and antisemitism.”

Some of the organizers of anti-lockdown groups have rapidly radicalized over the course of the pandemic. Attila Hildmann, a celebrity vegan chef in Germany, went from initially helping organize rallies against social distancing measures to months later running a Telegram channel with over 120,000 subscribers at its peak, where he spreads anti-vaccine misinformation and antisemitic conspiracies. Hildmann has issued death threats toward politicians he believed were promoting Jewish interests and called on his supporters to target officials. Hildmann fled from Germany to Turkey earlier this year to avoid potential prosecution and told his followers he is now a “real proud Nazi.”

“We've had individuals in the UK putting out leaflets which compared the NHS to Auschwitz.”

The anti-vaccine movement has brought in extremist groups from across the far-right spectrum.

In the United States, members of the far-right Stop the Steal movement that promoted the conspiracy that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election have since shifted toward opposing vaccines and government mandates. Pro-Trump celebrities like former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Simone Gold, founder of the right-wing activist group America’s Frontline Doctors, have both headlined anti-vaccine rallies this year. Other prominent anti-vaccine activists also double as QAnon influencers, lumping vaccinations in with their beliefs into broader conspiracies about global pedophile elites plotting to control the world. Meanwhile, far-right extremists like the Proud Boys have attended similar rallies in multiple states. 

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Canadian members of the sovereign citizen movement have attempted to carry out citizen’s arrests of public officials over vaccine mandates, while far-right politicians have become leaders in the anti-vaccine movement. One of the most prominent figures in Canada’s anti-vaccine movement is Mark Friesen, who also ran as a parliamentary candidate for the far-right People’s Party of Canada and has appeared on a white nationalist livestream show. Before switching to anti-vaccine rallies, he was a lead organizer of Canada’s anti-government Yellow Vests protests.

The symbiotic relationship between anti-vaxxers and the far-right has been a boon for anti-vaccine activists, politicizing the decision to get vaccinated and aligning the movement with powerful right-wing political groups. Anti-vaxxers now have fervent champions in Congress, including far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who this month announced she was unvaccinated and would refuse the vaccine “because I’m an American.”

“It’s really grown in strength by becoming part of the whole far-right,” said Peter Hotez, co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital. “As a consequence of that, people who want to show their allegiance to that movement do so by refusing vaccinations.”  

Hotez, who authored a book that examines his own daughter’s autism diagnosis and debunks medical conspiracy theories, is a longtime target of online hate and threats from anti-vaccine activists. More recently, he’s noticed they’ve taken on a far-right tone.

“Now when the threats come, it’s of a different character,” Hotez said. “It’s about an army of patriots coming to take me down.”

The extremism pipeline

Late last year, Facebook banned the Stop Mandatory Vaccination group—not for spreading medical misinformation among its 200,000 members but for violating the platform’s policies on QAnon. The group, which circulated unproven treatments and anti-vaccine rhetoric, had become rife with QAnon conspiracies as its founder Larry Cook claimed that vaccines were part of a “global plan to enslave humanity.” 

Cook’s group was one of many online communities across social media platforms where QAnon conspiracies and anti-vaccine activists overlapped. Following Trump’s election defeat and the Jan. 6 insurrection, the QAnon movement increasingly became fixated on vaccinations. QAnon influencers created anti-vaccine viral videos promoting groundless claims that the pandemic was a hoax or that vaccines were an attempt to kill people en masse in order to control the global population. 

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The pipeline between anti-vaccine groups and other forms of extremism is especially dangerous, researchers say, because the anti-vax movement draws followers from a greater range of the population than far-right activists could normally reach. Many anti-vaccine supporters may not even fully understand that the conspiracies they share have deep ties to far-right and antisemitic narratives.

Anti-vaccine activists come to the movement in a number of ways—from wellness communities posting medical misinformation, from their belief in anti-government conspiracies, or from distrust of pharmaceutical companies. But much of the anti-vaccine movement’s ideology tends to fit neatly into what some researchers call “super conspiracies,” which include QAnon and New World Order movements.

“These are the kind of big, overarching narratives that provide explanation for smaller conspiracies,” said David Lawrence, a researcher with anti-extremism group Hope Not Hate, adding that these so-called super conspiracies are often gateways to antisemitism and other extremist beliefs.

Social media platforms’ lack of effective moderation and anti-vaccine policy failures helped amplify those conspiracies. Facebook researchers found in February that as many as 60 percent of comments on vaccine-related posts contained anti-vaccine sentiment, according to the company’s leaked internal documents.

Deep roots in antisemitism

At an Arizona school board meeting last month, an anti-vaccine activist at the microphone rattled off a list of grievances that ranged from the “deep state” to critical race theory as she denounced vaccinations and pharmaceutical companies. Just before storming off, she made a final accusation. 

“And if you want to bring race into this, it's the Jews,” she said.

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Behind many anti-vaccine narratives are thinly veiled old bigotries and well-worn conspiracies, researchers say, promoting antisemitic tropes of secretive elites and powerful Jewish families controlling the world. During the pandemic, many of these have come to the forefront, such as this month when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ press secretary, Christina Pushaw, suggested that the Rothschilds were involved in a conspiracy to profit from COVID-19.

With mainstream platforms such as Facebook and YouTube attempting to crack down on COVID-19 misinformation, many anti-vaccine groups and activists have migrated to less-moderated platforms such as Telegram and Parler where extremist and antisemitic rhetoric is common. 

“Some of these alternative platforms have very entrenched far right communities that are very strongly antisemitic,” Lawrence said. “So all these conspiracy theory types finding their way onto these platforms meant that they’re in close proximity to these antisemitic elements.”

One of the largest COVID-19 conspiracy channels on Telegram, with over 70,000 members, has featured thousands of antisemitic posts since it started six months ago. Another Telegram channel of a Florida pastor turned prominent QAnon influencer regularly posts a mix of explicit antisemitic and white supremacist propaganda, along with anti-vaccine conspiracies. 

Couple wearing anti-semitic Holocaust imagery at an anti-vaccine protest in Rome on July 27th, 2021 (Photo by Samantha Zucchi/Insidefoto/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

“More human beings globally will die at the hands of the Zionist-created vaccines than Jews died during WWII,” one post stated. The channel has over 300,000 subscribers and is filled with antisemitic comments framing vaccinations as part of a global Jewish plot. 

While far-right extremists promote antisemitic conspiracies about secretive cabals or a new world order, another section of the anti-vaccine movement has taken to appropriating the Holocaust and claiming that unvaccinated people are today’s equivalent of Jews under Naziism. 

Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene made headlines earlier this year after she compared policies requiring face masks to Nazis forcing Jews to wear yellow Stars of David during the Holocaust, but Greene’s rhetoric is a common talking point in the anti-vaccine movement.

Anti-vaxxers in numerous countries have worn yellow stars and made comparisons between themselves and victims of the Holocaust. In Germany, anti-vaxxers shared images featuring the words “vaccination sets you free” in reference to the infamous “work sets you free” slogan at the entrance to the Auschwitz Nazi death camp. French and British anti-vaccine protesters have similarly worn Stars of David during rallies and vowed health officials would face Nuremberg-style trials.

“We've had individuals in the UK putting out leaflets which compared the NHS to Auschwitz, which is kind of just this base scare-mongering. But ultimately it’s trivializing and minimizing the Holocaust,” Lawrence said.

A look through any anti-vaccine group on social media will almost inevitably lead to talk about nefarious elites who have elaborate plans to commit harm—a long-standing thread through both anti-vaxxer conspiracies and far-right beliefs that is now repackaged for the pandemic. 

“That narrative is certainly linked to antisemitism,” Gallagher said. “It gets a new coat of paint every decade or so.”

Tagged:

extremism, neo-nazis, anti-vax, vaccines, anti-vaxxer, worldnews, worldnews-covid

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